Book review: ‘When the Heavens Went on Sale’ by Ashlee Vance
Image credit: Karaevgen/Dreamstim
The stories of four lesser-known figures at the centre of the New Space Age are occasionally inspiring, sometimes alarming, but always compelling.
In 2008, SpaceX became the first private company to build an inexpensive rocket capable of reaching orbit. The years since have seen a transformation in who gets to play in space. National space agencies are still ambling along with their Moon and Mars missions, but headlines are mostly made by private companies with their cheap, frequent rocket launches and audacious plans for space colonisation. No longer can Tim Curry’s meme-making Premier Cherdenko of Red Alert 3 escape to space as “the one place that hasn’t been corrupted by capitalism”.
In ‘When the Heavens Went on Sale: The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach’ (WH Allen, £22, ISBN 9780753557754) Ashlee Vance, a technology writer best known for his bestselling Elon Musk biography, tells the story of four of these companies – Astra, Firefly, Planet Labs and Rocket Lab – as they reach for the stars (or, at least, for low-Earth orbit).
The story starts with Pete Worden, who, as a Nasa director, grew frustrated with the agency’s bureaucratic culture (a “self-licking ice-cream cone”, he fumed) and began introducing private-sector values to the organisation. Worden is the first in a series of colourful characters one cannot help but suspect are more fun to read about than to work for. Broadly speaking, they are energetic, ambitious, narrowly clever, eccentric in an utterly unendearing way: the kind of people who plan how to optimise their impact on the world over the next 20 years with a spreadsheet.
Although this is not a book about SpaceX (Vance deliberately chooses to focus on companies that are not already household names), Elon Musk is a presence throughout; these founders all implicitly or explicitly want a seat at his table. For better or worse, these are the people at the centre of the New Space Age.
Vance has secured enviable access, and ‘When the Heavens Went on Sale’ – based on five years of reporting from within this world – is a revealing, thorough, rollicking look inside the Wild West of aerospace engineering.
By the end, Vance is visiting a start-up, LeoLabs, which monitors orbiting objects for other organisations. Only a few years ago, it would be absurd to suggest that such a job would be in the hands of a private actor. “The story of LeoLabs is the story of the New Space Race in a nutshell,” he says. “We have reached a point where a fifty-person start-up has emerged as the air traffic control system for low-Earth orbit”.
One puts down the book frustrated by Nasa’s self-defeating sluggishness, but – at least in this reader’s case – repelled by the disruptors who have raced ahead. One gets the impression Vance is rooting for the latter, and, undoubtedly, he is defiant in paying little heed to the growing voices of caution against the commercialisation and colonisation of space. That said, ‘When the Heavens Went on Sale’ is not compromised by partiality. It is an entertaining and informative book built on extensive original reporting.
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